…. and something else I do when I’m not writing my novel or writing travel articles or hitting the gym or doing other stuff which I haven’t told you about yet is I go to the beach.
Terracina is like this now. Gone is the still, empty, beach of winter: here are the umbrellas, the sunshine, the weekend concerts and a fistful of Russian, German, and Italian tourists. Not August crowds yet; you can still drive through town and the line dancing hasn’t hit the beach, but there’s enough new blood to make this ol’ town churn with a bit of liveliness. Nighttime drinks at the usual spots, new clubs opening, dancing until the wee hours. And on weekend afternoons, it’s laying out under the sun. Watching the Maga Circe sit stately on the luscious waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
We tend to hit the beach shack that belongs to our friend, Berto. Berto is a childhood chum of Mauro’s. Mauro is my neighbor. We’re all connected now; a web of drinks and movies and dance moves and sand. Berto’s mother loves us; grabbed me to her the first time I popped over to visit: You’re E, the American. The writer. Berto’s talked about you and pulls Flora by the hand towards the sand: Berto! Look! It’s your friends! and Oh, you’re Katarina. Berto said I’d meet you last weekend but I was busy in the kitchen and didn’t get to. The sun is bright and we lay out on blue and white beach chairs under blue and white striped umbrellas and despite the sheer gorgeousness of it all, we have the gall to complain: The wind is strong or That guy over there is making too much noise or I can’t sleep and E, if you’re going to put on SPF 15 why don’t you just stay home with a blanket over your body?
It’s not SPF 15, I say. It’s SPF 55.
Heads turn. What do you mean it’s SPF 55? Let me see that bottle. Oh my god, it’s true – 55. What’s the matter with you?
The sun causes cancer, I say.
So does smoking, they say. But we all do it.
I don’t smoke.
But the sun is good for you.
It causes cancer!!!
No one gets skin cancer in real life.
It is real and it strikes people we love.
And the sun makes you look like leather when you’re 40.
Yeah, but a tan looks so good.
You’d look really good if you had a dark tan.
I’d rather stay pale, thanks.
You’re so American.
Well, what do you expect me to do about it? This is how I’m made.
And I put on another coat of my Neutrogena SPF 55. And we watch the waves. And then I turn my head and it’s the boys – our friends, men I’m supposed to look in the face – in Speedos and I can’t; I just can’t; my eyes; my eyes! So I complain later to Flora and Katarina: How am I supposed to take Francesco and Alessio seriously when they’re wearing Speedos? K and F say: But they have the bodies for it! And I stammer: Yes, but… But nothing, I guess. We’re young and we’re on the beach and we’re in Italy, where no one wears sunblock and straight men prance around in crotch slings and after sunning ourselves, we head to the dining area where Berto’s mother brings us bottles of beer and a plate of apricot crostata she made herself and it’s the best thing you ever put in your mouth so mmmmf and like happy little kids, thank you Berto’s mother.
They’re talking about something now, but I’m looking out at the beach. Thinking about when I first moved to Terracina almost a year ago, before I knew anyone. When I went to the free beach across the street from my apartment because I didn’t know there was a difference between beaches, when I lay out on the sand and looked over at the families, the groups of friends laughing together and sharing coconut slices. When I dragged myself into the water and looked at the Roman temple to my left; the Maga Circe to my right. Doggy paddling in the soup-like surf and wondering where the people my age were. Rinsing my feet off in the public faucet and wondering what to make myself for solitary dinner. Walking up and down the boardwalk; back and forth, back and forth, because I had no friends and nothing to do. Looking out at the mountain during pink and yellow sunset; hearing laughter and shouts around me; faceless, nameless people and going home to my apartment each night, to talk to no one.
But now Berto’s mother brings out another sheet of pastries – these are dietetic, she swears – and Francesco says: E, with that hat, you really, really look like an American. Berto, of course, must chime in: I’m going to get one and look like an American, too. What do men wear in America – cowboy hats? And, oh, Mauro’s two cents: Let me turn sideways and see if the hat looks any better from that angle. But it’s not my fault if dumb boys can’t appreciate the awesomeness that is my straw fedora; I’m super super cute in it and they’re just jealous and after all, they wear Speedos so what do they know? I shrug them off – Can I get you guys a hammer? I mean, if you’re going to break my balls you might as well do it right – and they laugh and Mona glances over at me: Looks like you’re getting some sun after all. I dare a peek down my bikini top and it’s true; my boobs look like black and white cookies. She lights another cigarette and sand-covered children streak through the dining area and Berto’s mother says: Eat the pastries! They’ll get cold.
It’s the same mountain. The same sea. The same beach umbrellas, the same sand, and the same boardwalk. And yet, things are utterly different.